Laurie Cumbo, who was appointed commissioner of the Department of Cultural Affairs last week by Mayor Eric Adams, worked as an intern at the Metropolitan Museum of Art when she was 15. She went on to found the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts in 1999, in a brownstone in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. And when she was a member of the City Council, she served on its cultural affairs committee.
She has also caused offense over the years. In 2013, in the wake of attacks on Jewish residents in Brooklyn, she wrote that many African American and Caribbean residents feared being “pushed out by their Jewish landlords.” And in 2015 she was criticized after asking why the New York City Housing Authority was moving so many Asian Americans into public housing units in Brooklyn. (She apologized in both incidents.) More recently, she offended immigration advocates by opposing a bill that would allow noncitizens to vote.
Now, as Ms. Cumbo takes the helm of the Cultural Affairs department at a delicate moment — with the arts sector still struggling to emerge from the pandemic and her predecessor at the department warning that the agency is in trouble — people in the field are assessing her background and trying to gauge what kind of leader she will be.
“At a bare minimum, our town deserves a cultural leader deeply respectful of backgrounds and perspectives that enrich our world,” said Reynold Levy, the former president of Lincoln Center and an expert on nonprofits. “Does Laurie Cumbo meet these simple, elementary tests?”
Asked about some of her past statements, Ms. Cumbo responded in an email that she had “spent my professional life building coalitions.”
“I’m a big believer in the democratic process, and in the beauty and solidarity of New York’s rich, diverse communities, and in the power of art and open dialogue to help bring us together,” she wrote. “As commissioner, I’ll continue working, learning, and growing with the communities I’ve dedicated my life to serving.”
Mayor Adams said that Ms. Cumbo “brings a breadth of experience in the arts, community advocacy and city government to her role as commissioner” in the statement announcing her appointment.
Ms. Cumbo, for her part, pledged to be “laser focused on helping our city’s cultural sector and cultural nonprofits recover from the impacts of the pandemic.”
“Our arts community,” she said in the email, “and particularly arts groups of color, were profoundly damaged by the pandemic.”
A former majority leader in the City Council, Ms. Cumbo, who was raised in Brooklyn, graduated with a degree in art history from Spelman College and a master’s degree in visual arts administration from New York University. She has taught in the arts and cultural management program at Pratt Institute and worked at the Brooklyn Museum and the Brooklyn Children’s Museum. The Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts, or MoCADA, is constructing a new home on Ashland Place.
“Every single moment in my life,” Ms. Cumbo said in a statement this month, “has led me to this incredible opportunity.”
“Together, we will center the arts in New York’s economic recovery,” she added, “and bolster the educational and cultural experiences of every New York City student.”
But in a job where diplomacy has traditionally been important, Ms. Cumbo’s past divisiveness could complicate her role. When the news site The City reported earlier this month that her appointment was imminent, its headline was: “Laurie Cumbo, Adams Supporter Criticized for Cultural Insensitivity, Set to Lead Cultural Affairs Agency.”
Upon her appointment, several critics took to Twitter to voice their objections, including Make the Road New York, an immigrant advocacy group, and Shahana Hanif, a member of the City Council, who said that Ms. Cumbo “has a history of racially insensitive and anti-Semitic remarks” and that “I do not believe she is right to lead in city government.”
Ms. Cumbo said in an email that she recognizes “the vulnerability that exists particularly for communities of color when we are divided.”
“An approach rooted in broad solidarity has always been particularly important for the BIPOC communities I’ve represented, which have been profoundly impacted and devastated by centuries of colonialism, slavery, and racism,” she wrote.
After Ms. Cumbo apologized in 2013 for her statement on Jewish landlords, Evan R. Bernstein, the Anti-Defamation League’s New York regional director, issued a statement that said, “We welcome Ms. Cumbo’s apology and her recognition that her remarks about the Jewish community evoked classic anti-Semitic stereotypes and as such were deeply offensive.”
Last December Ms. Cumbo opposed the bill allowing noncitizens to vote, which the Mayor approved in January.
Ms. Cumbo questioned whether the bill would dilute the voting power of African Americans. “This particular legislation is going to shift the power dynamics in New York City in a major way,” she said at the time, an argument that was criticized as “divisive” by Tiffany Cabán, an incoming councilwoman from Queens.
When news emerged this year that Ms. Cumbo was in line for the cultural affairs post, Politico reported that immigration advocates — including members of the mayor’s transition committee on arts and culture — had voiced concerns to City Hall officials.
One committee member, Luis Miranda, a political consultant and the father of the Broadway star Lin-Manuel Miranda, was among them. Luis Miranda, whose concerns were first reported by Politico, was said at the time to believe that she was not suited to the cultural affairs position after her comments on the bill, according to someone familiar with his thinking.
On the Council, where she represented Brooklyn’s 35th district, Ms. Cumbo also supported progressive causes, including an increase of the minimum wage to $15, pay equity, domestic violence services, family leave policy and gun violence prevention. On the cultural front, she worked to increase the budget for the Department of Cultural Affairs and other arts programs.
She also helped rescue the Weeksville Heritage Center in Brooklyn, which is the historic site of a village established by Black New Yorkers after the state abolished slavery in 1827.
“Laurie has been a passionate champion of the arts her entire professional life — from creating MoCADA to supporting the arts as a council member,” said Anne Pasternak, director of the Brooklyn Museum. “She has been a supporter of large and small institutions alike. She’s a creative problem solver. And I know her to be a bridge builder — you should see her in a crowd in Crown Heights where she’s built trusting and supportive relationships with Orthodox rabbis and Black leaders alike.”
Susana Torruella Leval, a former director of El Museo del Barrio, said she had followed Ms. Cumbo since she started MoCADA. “It was a modest place but she was doing extremely ambitious and very fine shows,” she said. “She has excellent qualifications for the job.”
Some arts executives say the Department of Cultural Affairs — which was allocated $145.2 million in the mayor’s preliminary budget for fiscal year 2023 — has been overextended, leaving projects gridlocked.
Cumbo’s predecessor, Gonzalo Casals, who resigned from the post in December 2021, warned in a tweet this month that “if the city does not make severe investments in @NYCulture by increasing staff and salaries, the agency could collapse very soon.”
Asked to respond to the tweet, Ryan Max, a spokesman for the department, said: “We are confident we can manage the agency’s programs with current staffing,” adding that the agency is “focused on filling” four job vacancies.
The agency “has been pulled in too many directions and been given multiple mandates by the City Council and the mayor,” said Eli Dvorkin, editorial and policy director at the Center for an Urban Future, a public policy think tank, “all while trying to maintain its basic core functions of maintaining the city’s cultural initiatives.”
Zachary Small contributed reporting.